Health Canada takes steps to restrict amount of alcohol allowed in sugary premixed beverages

Health Canada is taking steps to reduce the amount of alcohol allowed in the potent, sugary, premixed drinks that the agency says are becoming a growing risk to public health, especially for young people.

Agency says these drinks are becoming a growing risk to public health, especially for young people

Health Canada has moved to restrict the amount of alcohol in caffeinated-alcoholic beverages such as FCKD UP, seen here at a Quebec dépanneur. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Health Canada is taking steps to reduce the amount of alcohol allowed in the potent, sugary, premixed drinks that the agency says are becoming a growing risk to public health, especially for young people.

"These drinks can contain up to four times the standard amount of alcohol per container, yet do not taste like alcohol, because the alcohol base is purified, flavoured, and often very sweet," the government agency said in a news release.

The proposed amendments to the country's Food and Drug Regulations would help protect youth from over-consumption that could lead to alcohol poisoning and death, Health Canada said.

The changes would mean that the number of servings of alcohol permitted in one container would be reduced. Any container under a litre could not contain more than 1.5 servings of alcohol under the new amendments. That means they must contain 25.6 millilitres or less of alcohol.

Right now, a can of 568 millilitres of flavoured, purified alcohol could contain up to 11.9 per cent alcohol, the equivalent of four alcoholic drinks.

Under the new regulation, a drink of the same size could not contain more than 4.5 per cent alcohol by volume, Health Canada said.

But the amendments would not apply to alcohol sold in glass bottles of 750 millilitres or more, since those drinks are considered to contain several portions.

The reason for this is that glass bottles that are this size are a common format for traditional alcoholic beverages, such as wine and spirits, Health Canada said. 

"As a result, consumers are likely to identify these formats as containing multiple servings of alcohol," the agency said. 

In March, Quebec moved to ban the sale of premixed malt-based beverages containing more than seven per cent alcohol from anywhere other than the provincial liquor stores.

That decision came two weeks after Montreal-area teenager Athena Gervais died after she reportedly consumed an 11.9 per cent alcohol malt-liquor drink called FCKED UP on her school lunch break.

The company that produces FCKD UP has since halted production, but other similar beverages are still on the market in the province.

Athena's father, Alain Gervais, said he and his family are happy with how quickly the federal government moved on the issue, and how the proposed amendments address the amount of alcohol and the format in which it is sold. 

"The main goal is to protect our young people from these products which are, frankly, dangerous. I can't say more than we are really happy," Gervais said. 

Sugary, high-alcohol beverages also played a role in the death of 30-year-old Drummondville, Que., resident Pierre Parent last Christmas Day.

He died after combining two Four Loko drinks, which had an alcohol content of 11.9 per cent, with caffeine and cold medicine, according to a coroner's report released in August.

Proposal significant, but not perfect: substance abuse specialist

For the Quebec Association for Public Health (ASPQ), the proposed amendments are a step forward, but don't address the problem completely.

Instead of 1.5 standard drink portions, ASPQ substance abuse specialist Émilie Dansereau-Trahan says it should only be one portion.

"When someone will open a container of alcohol, they will think they are taking only one portion," Dansereau-Trahan said. "And when they take the second one, it will actually be the third one."

Still, the proposal is "really significant," she said.

Dansereau-Trahan also suggested ensuring that drinks with more than one portion of alcohol should have a container that is re-sealable, as well as including a logo that tells the drinker exactly how many portions are in the beverage.

Health Canada expects the new regulations to come into effect by spring of 2019, after a consultation period.

With files from Radio-Canada

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